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Korach and the Abuse of Power

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I'm sure many of us can reach back into the deepest recesses of our memories and identify the first news story that we were aware of. For some it might have been Pearl Harbor, the founding of the State of Israel, the Kennedy assassination or man walking on the moon. For me, my earliest memory of a news event is Richard Nixon's resignation as president and Gerald Ford's inauguration as president. I was 3 years old at the time, but I can picture the sofa I was sitting on, the position of the TV I was watching with my parents, the layout of the living room. I remember my parents explaining that Nixon did bad things. Even if I didn't fully understand the intricacies of Watergate, it was a formative experience in my moral development. I was introduced to concepts such as stealing and lying and their moral antidotes of justice and truth. As my parents like to say, I was weaned on Watergate.

Earlier this week, June 17, marked the 40th anniversary of the burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington. The occasion inspired me to look back on this piece of my youth and reflect on its meaning and to see what lessons can be applied to today.

As I went through childhood, I became a Watergate junkie. Shortly after my parents bought our first VCR, one of the first movies I taped was "All the President's Men" when it aired on TV. I then watched that movie several times and read the book as well. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were my heroes, especially since I shared a last name with one of them (no relation, by the way). As a teenager interested in both politics and journalism, I continued to be fascinated by the Watergate saga and its interesting cast of characters.

I went most of my life longing to know the identity of Deep Throat, Bob Woodward's secret inside source. Then, in 2005, an aging Mark Felt, a former top official with the FBI, revealed himself as Deep Throat. Woodward and Bernstein went on national TV to confirm his identity. There was a sense of closure and relief. I was enthralled by the news of the identity of Mark Felt, an American hero.

Earlier this month, Woodward and Bernstein wrote their first joint byline for the Washington Post in 36 years, an anniversary retrospective titled "40 years after Watergate, Nixon was far worse than we thought." They show that Watergate did not happen in a vacuum. Nixon's archives of tapes that have come to light in recent years reveal his pathology and paranoia to degrees that many never imagined. Woodward and Bernstein identify five major spheres in which Nixon waged war on his political enemies and often flouted the law: his war against the anti-war movement, his war on the news media, his war on the Democrats, his war on justice and his war on history.

Nixon's tragic quest for unfettered power has echoes throughout history including the antagonist of last week's Torah portion, Korach.

The portion begins: "Now Korach ... a Levite (and cousin of Moses and Aaron!), betook himself, along with Dathan and Aviram ... of the tribe of Reuven, to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute" (Numbers 16:1-2).

In other words, these rebels were prominent people. They were anshei shem, men whose names were known in the community.

The Hasidic master R. Neftali Tzvi of Ropshitz notes the following: Logically, a person who is a descendant of distinguished ancestors should be modest and humble. He should always think: "When will my deeds be as great as those of my ancestors?" In reality, we see that the opposite tends to be true. Such people are likely to be proud and arrogant. Perhaps they take their cue from Korach and his assembly. Because they were anshei shem, men of renown, they were arrogant and quarrelsome, so it has always been.

According to R. Neftali Tzvi of Ropshitz, being anshei shem, people of renown, is a special responsibility. Whether, like Korach, one belongs to the priestly tribe of Levi, or, in modern times, one is counted among "all the president's men" people of renown must be mindful of their special role as leaders of the community.

In the aftermath of Watergate, there was a spirit of reform in our country that sought to make government more transparent and accountable and elected officials less prone to corruption. Campaign finance laws were central in the reforms enacted after this challenging chapter. Tragically, today we are witnessing an unraveling of the spirit of reform that Watergate sparked. A couple years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Citizens United case, overturned decades of precedent of campaign finance laws, including the bi-partisan McCain-Feingold law. The Justices in the majority claimed that they were protecting free speech, but I believe the net result is free speech for the wealthiest Americans while effectively silencing those without money and access to power. Their decision opened the floodgates for the so-called SuperPACs that are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into this year's presidential campaign. I don't care what your favorite political party is or your favorite candidate, the system is broken. When someone like Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul, pledges $100 million to support one particular presidential candidate, it should give us all pause. Forty years ago, Nixon threatened democracy by using his levers of power to quash dissent, whatever the means. Today, a small cadre of the wealthiest Americans also threatens democracy itself through spending appalling amounts of money to buy votes, influence officials and gain access to power.

Recently, I had the opportunity to serve as principal author of a resolution on campaign finance reform that was adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly at its May 2012 convention. In the name of the rabbinical arm of Conservative Judaism, the resolution includes the following:

Whereas wealthy individuals and corporations can now circumvent campaign finance laws by pouring unlimited funds into "Super PACs" that have coarsened political discourse and have made candidates even more beholden to the wealthy few and their interests;

Whereas in a modern democracy, it is necessary for elected officials to be accountable to all citizens, not just wealthy and powerful moneyed interests;

Whereas in a time of economic stress in our nation and around the world the billions of dollars spent on American elections are unseemly and immoral in the face of increased poverty, hunger, unemployment and lack of access to health care, among the many pressing issues in our society requiring greater resources; and

Whereas the Rabbinical Assembly as far back as 1997 has called for campaign finance reform.

Therefore be it resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly call upon the United States Congress, the U.S. Administration and state and local governments nationwide to reform current campaign financing regulations to ensure greater accountability of elected officials to the American public...

In Parashat Korach, we learn about anshei shem, men of renown, who abuse their power to the detriment of the community. We saw a similar phenomenon 40 years ago in Watergate, and we see it today in our broken election financing system. Let us remember what Hillel teaches us in Pirke Avot (2:8): Kanah shem tov, kanah atzmo, one who acquires (or "buys") a good name, acquires himself. In other words, the acquisition of a good reputation brings about true personal accomplishment. Furthermore, in truth, a good name is not actually bought through money, but through establishing a reputation of goodness.

May we be blessed to live in a time where men and women of renown in our society understand the true value of acquiring a good name, and may we see American democracy achieve its fullest potential in providing liberty and justice for all.